The “Performativity” of Sexual Orientation


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Quite often, one of the main arguments against “conversion therapy” is simply to say that “it doesn’t work,” even, of course, that it is “dangerous” and presents long-lasting harm to the person undergoing such treatment—all of which is of course correct. However, not long after my own years in this kind of “therapy,” I also wanted to understand why it did not work; I wanted to understand what it was that made some people believe that it did; and almost most of all, I wanted to understand how it caused grievous harm to the person who ended up going through it. I wanted to explain all of this, if only to myself, in a constructive and meaningful way. I wanted a theory of comprehension.

Philosopher Judith Butler and her theory on the “performativity” of gender, as first argued in the book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, helped me make sense out of all of it, for her writing showed me how the notion of “citationality,” which Butler applied to gender, might also apply to the idea of sexual orientation. Because of Butler’s theory postulating that gender is not innate but rather is a kind of imitation for which there is no original—that it is constantly “reiterated” or “performed”—I was able to distinguish between my outer performativity of sexuality (i.e., “homosexuality” and “heterosexuality,” which as taxonomical constructs are not innate but were “created” in time and space—and only about 150 years ago), and inner same-sex erotic desire (which, though labeled differently over the years, has also existed since time immemorial). As I had experienced through most of my years in “conversion therapy,” the outer and the inner were not always congruent, such as when I acted or “performed” in accordance to the belief that I was, or was at least becoming, “straight,” while simultaneously still experiencing same-sex erotic desire. In other words, my outer “map” of sexual identity, as a heterosexual man, and my inner “territory” of desire, as a man who was sexually attracted to other men, did not match. My actions had quite literary precipitated an incongruent “heterosexual same-sex desire.” As the “therapy” progressed, and greater effort was placed on the idea of “leaving homosexuality,” or at least on returning to my “innate heterosexuality,” I continued to experience increasing dissonance between these two frames of reference, my outer identity and inner desire. Faced now in two opposing directions, I was existentially splitting at the seams, and it was only a matter of time before my life would come crashing down around me: depression would set in, a sense of depersonalization and alienation from myself would overwhelm. Suicide seems logical to the person whose life becomes utterly meaningless.

Today, however, I now understand how the socially constructed phenomenon, the map, of sexual orientation (both homosexuality and heterosexuality) is separate from the experience, or territory, of erotic desire (both same-sex and opposite-sex). To paraphrase philosopher Alfred Korzybski—a map may not be the territory it represents, but at least now my life is congruent, because map and territory match. I also now understand how someone can believe they are “changing” themselves, because notions of “change” to advocates of “conversion therapy” have everything to do with identity, even if that means betraying one’s inner life while presenting to the world as heterosexual—coupling with an opposite sex partner. A person, I believe, can sustain this level of inauthenticity and duplicity, even magical thinking, only for so long. Meaning is built on truth, and “conversion therapy” sustains itself through lies.